Anybody thinking that Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron might have a slight case of the “big head” coming off his Offensive MVP performance in the BCS National Championship Game might want to think again.
The Crimson Tide open spring practice on Friday, and McCarron isn’t talking about winning another national title. He’s not talking about establishing himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. He’s not even talking about what he can bring to the Alabama passing game in his second season as the starter.
Nope, he’s talking about getting his steps right in the run game.
That’s right … his steps.
“It may sound funny to some people, but I have to get better in the run game,” McCarron said, outlining his priorities this spring.
“I want to get my steps down where my handoffs look the same as my play-action. I want to work on my stance under center and get that down. Those are two of the biggest things. I know I can make every throw on the football field. Practicing against Coach [Nick] Saban and Coach [Kirby] Smart every week, you see every defense in the book, even the ones that aren’t in the book yet and they’ve made up.
“I feel like I have a good grasp of the game from that sense. I just want to focus on myself a little and just try to get all my steps down and get them to where everything looks the same. That’s going to help our running game and help our whole offense.”
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about McCarron, who played his best game on the biggest stage last season in the 21-0 win over LSU in New Orleans, is that nothing has changed in his mind.
Sure, he wears a cap a little bit more these days when he goes out in public and even pulls it down a little lower so he doesn’t get recognized as much.
But when he is recognized, which is often, he remembers his mother’s advice.
“She used to always say, ‘It’s a good thing when people want your autograph and stuff like that. You’ve got to enjoy it and enjoy the ride,’” McCarron said.
His ride last season couldn’t have been much better.
He didn’t completely wrest the starting job from Phillip Sims until the first few weeks of the season. Once he did, McCarron went on to lead the Crimson Tide to a 12-1 record and their second national championship in the past three seasons.
Now a rising junior and one of the stars of the BCS National Championship Game with his 23-of-34 performance for 234 passing yards and no interceptions, McCarron is ready to go back to work.
And he’s not taking anything for granted.
“It’s like Coach [Saban] preaches all the time: You shouldn’t worry about what others are doing around you,” McCarron said. “My worry last spring wasn’t if I was going to beat Phillip out or how that situation was going to turn out. I felt like if I took care of my business and just worried about myself, I’d be in a good situation in the end. It turned out that way.
“So it’s the same thing this spring. I still have to go out and worry about my place. I know how I’m supposed to be playing the game and taking care of the football, and that never changes. We’re going to be younger on offense, but I feel like we’re going to be a good team. Everybody has to come to spring practice on the right note and handle their business. But if we just take care of our business, we’re going to be in a good situation in the end and hopefully down in Miami playing for another championship.”
The Alabama offensive staff was careful to bring McCarron along slowly last season. He responded by throwing only five interceptions all season.
As the game slowed down for him, the Crimson Tide gave him more responsibility and wound up building their game plan around him for the BCS National Championship Game.
“I used to joke about it. But for a second, early in the season, it almost looked like they were playing with 22 guys instead of 11 [on defense],” McCarron quipped. “About midway through the year, right after the Tennessee game, it started to slow down a lot for me.”
So much so that McCarron was allowed a lot more freedom in terms of making checks at the line of scrimmage, whether that was getting the Tide out of a bad play in the run game and putting them in a better one or switching to a different pass play.
“A lot of times when you see young quarterbacks fail and they don’t succeed is because they’re thrown into the fire from the get-go,” said McCarron, who redshirted his first year on campus and then backed up Greg McElroy during the 2010 season.
“It helps when you have a running game like we have. All the pressure’s not on you. At the same time, Coach [Jim McElwain, the offensive coordinator] did a great job of easing me into things and putting a little more on me as we went along.”
The BCS National Championship Game, according to McCarron, was what he had been building up to all season.
“They gave me my chance, and I’m thankful they did,” said McCarron, who completed 66.8 percent of his passes last season and finished 25th nationally in passing efficiency.
“They let me go out and play my game, getting me out on the edge some with play-action passes. That’s what I like to do. They let me go out and play, and the guys around me went out and made a bunch of plays for me.”
The one major change for McCarron and the entire Alabama offense this spring will be the guy running the offense. McElwain is now the head coach at Colorado State, and Doug Nussmeier is now the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach by way of Washington.
Saban already has said not to expect wholesale changes in what Alabama does offensively, but McCarron is eager to get out on the field with his new offensive boss.
“I sat in on the interview process with him and asked him some questions myself,” McCarron said. “He’s a very personable coach. I know he and Jake Locker were real close and spent a lot of time together on and off the field, and that helps me out. I like being close. I don’t want my coach just to be a coach. I want to know if I ever need anything that he’s there for me.
“I feel like we’ll be able to throw it a little more this year on offense and have some receivers coming in that are really going to make a difference. We have the look of a very explosive offense. Hopefully, we can all come together and have a good year. We definitely have the athletes to do it.
“It just comes down to all of us getting on the right page and making it happen.”